Let’s talk about end-to-end encryption and why we need it more than governments need to catch criminals


End-to-end encryption is an issue that crops up every now and then – usually when a politician feels bold enough to try and hold the tech industry to account without having the slightest idea of the ramifications tied to what they’re demanding.

The latest example is Priti Patel, the UK Home Secretary, who recently claimed that WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption is “unacceptable”.

As Patel would have it, “…the use of end-to-end encryption in this way has the potential to have serious consequences for the vital work which companies already undertake to identify and remove child abuse and terrorist content.”

In other words, because criminals could use end-to-end encryption to safely operate their criminal activities, governments – or at least law-enforcement agencies – should be given some sort of skeleton key to see what they’re up to.

We’ve been here before.

End-to-end encryption: the good and the bad

Right, so here’s a reality everyone in the world should wrap their heads around: technology makes crime easier. In the same way it makes life easier.

There’s a reason drug-dealers were early-adopters of beepers back in the 90’s. There’s a reason Silk Road came into being. Fast forward to where we are now and, yes, the likes of WhatsApp and Telegram make criminal activities easier thanks to end-to-end-encryption. But these are apps that millions of people use who have no interest in committing crimes.

And Priti Patel is demanding that a backdoor to all of it be created.

Leaving aside the moral aspect of violating privacy – which from the sounds of things Patel doesn’t give a toss about– if tech companies were prepared to acquiesce to her demands, consumers would be in a horrible situation. Not because criminals would be under a spotlight, but because all of us would be under a spotlight.

And once again, we’ve been here before.

Treating intrusion responsibly

In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed to the world that the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA) was basically spying on everyone. Whether you were an Al-Qaeda operative or a fifteen-year-old girl dancing about in her bedroom, the NSA was hoovering up everything. This revelation broke the trust that existed between Big Tech, government and a lot of its users.

All of a sudden, we realised what a backdoor meant.

We are back at this point and politicians and authorities – and Patel, to give her fair due, isn’t a lone voice in this regard – are demanding a backdoor into our end-to-end encrypted conversations.

Well, no. Not only is it a violation of everyone’s privacy, but also, it’s not like the authorities have a spotless record in treating surveillance responsibly. On top of that, there’s the issue of human fallibility to contend with.

The bodies that would be responsible for overseeing the initiatives Patel is demanding are made up of human beings. Human beings are fallible. No mater what sort of cutting-edge tech they’re using, eventually it’ll be abused. Right now, the source code for Prism – the global online-spy-programme that Snowden revealed to the world the NSA was using – is in the Dark Web. A group called The Shadow Brokers has been offering bits and pieces of the NSA’s code for the better part of two years.

We’re lucky that code has nothing to do with the end-to-end encryption that exists between financial transactions. If it did, the likes of government spying would look like a side-show bagatelle.

If WhatsApp, or Telegram, or any other messaging service was to offer a backdoor code to a government, it’s not a case of ‘if’ that skeleton key would make it out into the wild, it’s a question of ‘when’.

There is certainly an argument for authorities to be allowed to look into conversations that would lead to terrorist attacks and child abuse. The problem is: authorities haven’t earned that right. End-to-end encryption may frustrate authority figures until the cows come home, but us rank and file peons expect it. And we have every right to.


About Author

I've been writing about tech and games for around 20 years. Been playing games since I was tall enough to reach the controls on an arcade machine. Old enough to remember when games weren't something people yelled at each other about.

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